Outdoor dining is a safe alternative right now, but there's a right way and a wrong way to picnic while social distancing. We'll explain.

By Alexandra Emanuelli
Updated October 22, 2020
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Keeping their distance, mother and daughter are having a picnic on a little bridge outdoors. There is some video showing them together too.
Credit: Lucy Lambriex/Getty Images

As summer's last hot days fade into fall's early ones, people are eager to find safe ways to enjoy food and each other's company. That's despite restrictions on indoor dining and advice to stay six feet apart, and that is tough, to say the least.

Medical experts have noted that being outdoors lessens the likelihood of spreading or catching the novel coronavirus (Covid-19). And with little else available or open in many places, there has been an explosion in the use of public parks, green spaces, and the like for socializing and outdoor entertainment.

But enjoying food outdoors for extended periods has its own set of risks, especially with the still-hot temperatures occurring in numerous parts of the U.S. Here's our guide on how to plan a socially distanced picnic safely, as well as tips on how to prevent any foodborne illness in the process.

Limit Shared Surfaces

While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has noted that the risk of picking up the Covid-19 virus from food, water, or by touching takeout containers is very low, experts discourage the sharing of food with people outside of your immediate family or living group.

Food safety specialist and professor of food science at Ontario's University of Guelph Keith Warriner explained that "the biggest risk is approaching someone you are sharing food with. There was an outbreak of Covid-19 linked to a shared serving spoon. If someone tasted something with a spoon then passed it onto someone else, the virus [could] take hold on the throat or nose and then progress."

With that in mind, there are a few simple steps to take in order to keep your gathering as safe as possible.

Opt for disposable dinnerware

It may not always be eco-friendly, but disposable plates, cups, and utensils will be your best bet in these situations, as you'll be keeping any potential germs to yourself. We love these sleek options from Wild Leaf Table that are biodegradable and made from renewable materials. They are a more stylish option than the otherwise bland white plastic, too.

Keep hand sanitizer handy

Using a hand sanitizer before eating or touching your face is crucial, especially when out and about. Think about shopping your local distilleries for some, as many have been distilling their own, and the purchase of which can be a great way to support your local economy.

Don't forget the blankets

Bringing some additional gear, such as a few blankets (we like these by California Picnic that are easy to transport), pillows, or even a few folding chairs, can add crucial comfort while sprawled on the ground for several hours. Giving everyone their own blanket or chair may also encourage distancing.

A Swiss Army knife, wet wipes, and a means of collecting garbage will help the afternoon run smoothly. Remember to stay six feet apart when eating or any other time you remove your mask.

Keep Foods Properly Chilled

It's still plenty hot across most of the U.S. (and will be for several more weeks), so be conscious of the food you pack and how you store those items. Warriner recommends that, "a good way to maintain a cool temperature for longer is to fill a cooler with bags of cold water and some ice. The water keeps the temperature cool longer compared to ice packs. Obviously, you need to put your food and drink in watertight bags."

Soft cheeses and dishes rich with cream should be avoided if you're planning on staying out for extended periods without proper refrigeration, according to Warriner, as these items can easily grow bacteria when left out and can be the cause of foodborne illness.

Choose Snacks and Foods That Are Easily Dividable

If possible, divvy or slice food into portions, as it is best to have food pre-plated to prevent buffet-style serving. We spoke with registered dietitian Amy Gorin, who suggested some snacks that won't require extensive cooling and are easy to divvy up into portioned containers. Some of her faves? Healthy, easy classics like deviled eggs, spiced and sweetened berries, and honey roasted nuts, with a twist, of course.

She notes, "Easily portable foods such as avocado deviled eggs — or even hard boiled eggs — are great for picnics. One large egg provides six grams of high-quality protein, which helps support muscle and bone health. Eggs also boast lutein and zeaxanthin, which support eye health and may protect the eyes from harmful blue light from computers and phones. This is important, since we're spending more and more time on our computers these days!"

Of course, it's not a picnic without a sweet treat. Gorin's suggestion for an excellent single-serve dessert option? Try coffee cake muffins. We also love pre-sliced cookie bars, or if you have a solid cooler, popsicles. That would be a great excuse to eat dessert first.

It may feel slightly more intimidating this year to enjoy the outdoors, but by practicing social distancing and keeping a couple of extra items on hand, a fun and safe picnic is well within reach. Now, all there is is to plan the menu.

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